Soundings: Thoughts on Billy Frank Jr. while weeding and planting

Gardening is often a form of catharsis for me. The garden is a place I go to purge my soul, ease a worried mind and lighten a heavy heart.

I was drawn to the garden like a magnet Tuesday, working through the grief of the past 24 hours, the grief that descended on me and countless others with the sudden death of tribal leader Billy Frank Jr.

The iconic Nisqually Indian whose life was stuff of legend left the rest of us behind Monday morning. Right before he took his last breath, he mentioned that he was tired. I don’t blame him for feeling worn out. After all, he was 83 and had worked nonstop for 70 years to secure tribal treaty fishing rights, to keep salmon from going extinct and to turn off the spigots of pollution — he called them “poisons” — discharged with reckless abandon into the rivers and Puget Sound.

As a young teenager about the same age as Frank was when he was first arrested for netting salmon in the Nisqually River, I went to high school with Nisqually teens at North Thurston High School — the McClouds, the Sanchezes, the Blacketers. Don’t get me wrong: We didn’t socialize all that much. It was the mid-1960s and there was a racial divide not all that different from the one that existed in the Deep South between whites and blacks.

Then one day, I remember my Nisqually classmates came to school all light on their feet, animated and eyes blazing with excitement. The fish-ins on the river were drawing celebrities to their cause — actor Marlon Brando, comedian Dick Gregory and folk singer Buffy Saint Marie. A civil rights battle was unfolding that shared common themes with the sit-ins and school desegregations down South. And Billy Frank Jr. was right in the middle of the river, daring the white man to arrest him, over and over and over again. The young Nisqually tribal members came to school with their heads held high, infused with a shot of cultural pride.

Later in life, my professional path crossed Frank’s many times. I was the environmental reporter for The Olympian, covering the decline of salmon runs, Puget Sound pollution, overlogged watersheds and the deleterious creep of population growth and development.

Frank was someone I could count on for a forceful, insightful comment. He didn’t mince words. He was one of the few in a position of power who didn’t think the natural resources, the orcas, the salmon, the herring stood a snowball’s chance in hell of recovering, if the predictions of population growth in the region rang true.

In 1989, I wrote a newspaper series titled: “Puget Sound: Life or Death?” Frank talked to me about camping trips as a youth to Hawks Prairie to pick blackberries in forests and fields now covered by pavement, shopping malls and a landfill.

“We cannot continue to grow and have a quality of life,” Frank said at the time. “Seattle is growing to Thurston County, and they’re bringing their poisons with them.”

I wrote another award-winning newspaper series five years later. This one was called “Saving the Salmon.” Frank summed up the problem again: “We’ve been overrun by land-use activities. The paving, the wetlands loss, the growth. Somewhere, somebody has to say enough is enough.”

I thought of these quotes and others Tuesday as I uprooted old-growth buttercup plants from the garden plot and dug up overwintered dahlia tuber clumps to see how they fared — 11 survived and six rotted. I sweated. I got my hands dirty. I started feeling the relief that gardening on a sunny spring afternoon can provide, even in the face of tragic loss.

The last time I saw Billy Frank was three months ago at a 40-year anniversary celebration of the Boldt decision. He and other veterans of the fish wars of the 1960s and 1970s were compared with Indian warriors of yesteryear, proud Nisqually leaders, including Chief Leschi and Quiemuth. The comparison seemed fitting to me.

On Monday I was given the assignment to write a news story about the death of Billy Frank Jr. I had always hoped to be retired before he died, just to avoid that task. In the end, it was a painful privilege.

Later that night, I pulled a book from my office bookcase: “Message from Frank’s Landing, A Story of Salmon, Treaties and the Indian Way,” written by University of Colorado law professor Charles Wilkinson. The book is an excellent account of Frank’s life. More importantly, my copy contains an inscription written by Frank on Feb. 4, 2004:


My Friend for life.

I hope you find good messages from the book.

Your writing and your commitment is so important to our salmon and resources.

Your Friend,

Billy Frank, Jr.”

By day’s end Tuesday. The garden looked fresh and invigorated with new plants and seeds, and a lot less weeds. I felt better, still sad, but better. I count myself among the blessed who have Billy Frank Jr. as a friend for life.